Do You Understand?

It's a fact that every year Weirton, West Virginia endures many dark, wet, and cold nights. One of these nights my friend Billy and I sat in a car parked on the curb in front of a door. There were lots of doors on this street. Doors to an abandoned office space, a pawn shop, a liquor store, a Custom Paint and Panel, a financial services office, a Salvation Army, and other small shady venues. Most of the doors belonged to places that seemed unidentifiable. The dark doors expect you to know where you are going. This wasn't a part of town you meandered looking for a fun curious door to enter. 

We didn't have to look at a clock to know how late it was. The stillness of the street and the pale "closed" lights all told us it was after the time when normal people leave bars, and definitely not the time to be walking into a bar. Getting out, the thud of the car door shutting behind me echoed off the old buildings on both sides of the street and down past the flashing yellow traffic light. We stood next to a puddle outside the bar with our hands stuffed into our coat pockets. I realized my dorm room was probably just as wide as the bar we were about to walk into. The combined smell of a steel mill, rain, and cigarettes reminded me just how soft and squishy I was. A white upper-middle class twenty-something from a cookie-cutter neighborhood in commercialized Florida.

I suddenly hated Hollister even more. 

Billy and I were at a small bar in a rough part of Weirton after midnight with the hopes of talking to someone about Jesus. We called it "bar ministry". Get out of the Church and into the real world. Meet people. Share a beer. Maybe talk about Jesus. Don't force it. Don't be weird. 

This was our first time.

I should also mention that Billy and I were really, really stupid. 

But hey, the patron of our university, St. Francis, the jongleur de Dieu, kept us reassured company.

We walked into the bar like freshman walking into a varsity locker room. Don't make eye contact. Look tough. Look like you know what you're doing.  We made a bee line past a few hunched cargil jackets and sat at two of the ten total seats in the entire room. A very drunk older woman waving a cigarrete was slurring her way through "Runnin' with the Devil" pumping out of an old kareoke in the corner. Everyone was smoking. All of the eight people in the room looked like they were born during the Eisenhower administration, and probably in a factory.

I did my best to look like I've done at least a few days of manual labor ever in my life. I felt insecure about how thin and dainty my fingers suddenly seemed.  

Billy sat across from me at our small rickity table with wide eyes. We ordered two beers, I have no recollection of how we got them, and no memory of paying. We drank our beers quickly both with the unspoken intention of leaving as soon as possible. 

Suddenly a very tall man with a wrinkly face and wavy black hair walked his steel-toed boots over to our table and started slapping our backs and talking in a loud deep chain-smoker voice. It was normal drunk-guy talk. I could just barely make out that he asked where we were from and what we were doing in this bar this late at night. I remember his huge smile and glazed eyes and that he seemed to be a 45 year old working man carved out of wrinkled drift wood. He looked like a six foot five Steven Tyler who cranked a 15 pound wrench around a factory every day. We made nervous small talk with him and tried to understand what he was saying through the drunkenness and swearing and Van Halen. 

"You guys brothers, man?" Nope. We aren't. "You guys look like brothers. You gotta be brothers!" He shook us both by the back of the neck and I swear his fingers were made out of rebar. Suddenly we were all standing. He guffawed and yelled that we reminded him of his brother and made a joke that both Billy and I didn't get but still laughed at. This went on for about ten minutes. We were at his mercy. 

The conversation went back to his brother, and suddenly he got that very serious and somber drunk look. "My brother died a few years back. You guys gotta love each other, man. You's all you got. Brothers man."

He looked through me and for a second I braced myself for a hug. He continued to shake me with his metal hands latched onto my shoulder like a vice grip. 

"Sometimes I wonder man, what happened to my brother? You know? Where is he? Is he in heaven or something, man? I'm not religious. You're some good boys, man. Good Catholic boys. Be good. Don't get into no trouble. My brother, man, he was a better man than I am. He was a good person. But I screw up sometimes, man. I'm a screw up. Don't get into no trouble man."

His eyes became wet and he gritted his teeth and laughed and took a gulp of beer. I was speechless. I was nothing, a big pile of nothing in that moment. And then suddenly I was this guy's friend. I threw my arm over his shoulder, as best I could over someone so much taller than me, and tried to shake him back with my uncalloused little hands.

I wish I could remember what I said to him. I'm certain the next day he didn't remember anything I said to him. I only remember feeling convicted and like the entire room went away. Billy and I talked to this guy for 30 minutes. The feeling and conviction I kept getting was "Do you understand what you are really saying?"

Probably not, but it still makes my point...

In a weird way I felt like Phillip who came across the Eunuch in Acts 8. (Ok, a drunk Eunuch.) This guy was looking down, immersed in the writing of his life and suddenly, for no reason, Billy and I show up. And this guy, like the Eunach, was asking questions that meant a lot to him.

What is life?
Why do people die?
Am I good?
Can I be good?
Did I drive here?
Can I finish all the beers in this bar?

I remember he voiced some resemblance of Christian sentimentality towards death and some fragments of Scripture he probably got from the same places everyone who grows up in a still Christian nation get Scripture. But he needed more. He needed a kind of truth that penetrates real life experience. He needed a revelation.

The Eunuch is reading Scripture in his chariot when Phillip comes across him. He was reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Phillip walks into his life, literally gets "up into his chariot" and asks him "Do you understand what you are reading?" And the Eunach responds "How can I, unless someone guides me?"

It's so easy to fall into a lifestyle built on human interpretation.

The world is not starving for more interpretations and opinions. More answers to the question "Do you understand...?" But looking around at everything, my human experience and reason bring me to a place where I half-expect another, higher, interpretation to make itself known so that I can submit to it. I realize the folly in trusting myself to be right 100% of the time. I desire a grand unified theory for life built on authority and certainty but that respects my real life experience of uncertainty and doubt.

I believe many Christians have lost this sense of echoing a grand unified theory.

We fall into the common protestant approach of living on human opinion and interpretation. We lack a New Testament attitutude of echoing the authority of the Church. Much of this comes from an American individuality that wrongly looks at agreement with an institution or long-held tradition as intolerant or simple-minded.

This grand unified theory of life is fully revealed in the historical event of the life of Jesus Christ. It has been handed on throughout the centuries through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church (the teaching office of the Church).

To get to know Jesus, then, we must open ourselves to Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church. Otherwise, we are like the Eunach, reading Scripture by ourselves. “Sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church… are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others” (Dei Verbum Par. 10)

In our century, we have been given such a tool and gift. The Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is our guide, our solution to the temptation of relying solely on human interpretation. But it does not come to us by dominating our reason and life experience. God calls us to him through His revelation throughout history.

God woos us. 

The catechism is a tool that we can use to make our reading of Scripture more fruitful. The catechism, in a way, can be our Phillip. 

Sometimes the spiritual life can feel like we're drunk in a bar harassing college kids, bemoaning tragedy, and asking hard questions.

The catechism can be like Phillip, who represents the Church, the community of Christians, who asks us "Do you understand what you are reading?"

Because after that, "beginning with the scriptures he explained to him everything concerning Jesus."

How can we do this?

I'm glad you asked.    

This is an excerpt from the soon to be released book "Dual Wielding: Praying with Scripture and the Catechism". Imagine if all of us could make it a habit to pray with Scripture and the Catechism every day and have that prayer be super fruitful. I'm working hard to get this written. If you're interested in hearing more, head on over here and check it out. Sign up to the email list to receive exclusive content about the book, be involved in the writing of it, and get a copy as soon as we release it.


Edmund Mitchell is the Founder of Reverb Culture and writes a little. He talks some too.